We decided to take advantage of a long weekend recently over Valentine’s Day to travel to Kochi and see what all the hype of taking a houseboat in Kerala was about. We had 5 days including travel, with so we decided on the following itinerary:
We flew into hot-and-steamy Kochi on Friday evening and easily found the pre-paid taxi counter in the airport, which accepted cash only. Our cab driver was a speedy lane-weaver (with a really great singing voice and an uncanny ability to recall former US presidents) who did not think to pull the seat belt hookups from behind the terrycloth Indian flag towels that he used as a rather artistic substitute for proper seat covers. We spent the drive making sporadic small talk and I pretended not to think of the speed at which and likelihood that we would be propelled through the windshield upon collision with one of the many long haul truckers we passed on the highway.
Arriving to Fort Kochi with life and limb intact, we checked into our hotel, had dinner and called it an early night so we’d have energy to explore the area in the morning. The humidity and the still-present warmth hinted to us that the following day was likely to feel like a sweaty gym sock, so I fished out my hat and sunscreen to place by the door before passing out.
After a breakfast of idli and sambar, a thick and mildly spicy lentil and veggie soup, we took a short walk to the Chinese Fishing nets at the recommendation of our host. Unfortunately the first thing that caught my eye was the filth. There were these great, big graceful nets at the water’s edge, a historic feature of the area, and in the foreground on the shore were longboats for fishing, made by hand from mango wood, all in a sea of modern rubbish -- discarded styrofoam, wrappers, diapers, and other junk that had been either washed up or tossed aside. I actually felt my heart sink. With many places we’ve visited, I often ask myself, “how could a place with such history, such natural beauty and potential have been neglected like that?”
Rubbish aside, it was an interesting place – we stopped at the Dutch Cemetery, which appeared to be off limits to tourists, and nipped into the Santa Cruz Basilica, with its colorful saints, neon lights, and fresco interior. The inside is an amalgam of sights, a visual cross between India, Italy, and Las Vegas.
Our "DIY Google Maps Tour” of Fort Kochi (we just walked around using our phones) was over by about 2pm, and the mid day heat was pretty steamy – as in, I could feel sweat dripping down my back and my front. We threw in the towel, literally, and decided it was time to scoot. We hopped a ride to the Ramada Resort, located about an hour south, halfway to Allepy where we’d board the houseboat, and spent the drive feeling utterly indulgent, basking in the sweet air-conditioning. The rest of the day was spent lounging by the Ramada’s long, well-maintained pool, and reading (I was reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese at the recommendation of a friend – awesome book).
The next day, we took the drive to Allepy. The hotel driver had a CD filled with Boney M. tracks and really enjoyed singing Belfast, inserting “break-fast” for “Belfast” and laughing each time for effect. It was contagious, and eventually we succumbed to the groovy disco beats, singing along with him to such classics as Brown Girl in the Ring, Hooray! It's a Holiday, and Gotta Go Home, among others. We wanted to pick up some booze on the way, so we pulled up first to a government liquor shoppe, which had a line about 50 men deep. In the interest of time we decided to pass it and head to a hotel instead where we paid a little more – it was still under Rs. 500 ($10.00 USD).
We made it to the boat in Allepy on time and were introduced to the crew – a cook, a captain, and an assistant. We were off by 11:15am with our welcome drinks in hand and what seemed like hundreds of other houseboats heading the same way.
After an initial traffic-jammed waterway route we settled into our cruise and started to coast down the smaller canals. We docked at the end of the night, bought some fish from a local shop, and the cook put together an incredible Kerala meal. I noticed immediately a difference in the rice, which was long and fat. It had a very mild taste, and served as a base for picking up the various chutneys, pickles, and sauces that accompanied it. Our empty plates made him smile wide afterward, and we got to learn a little bit about him.
He said that his father had owned a restaurant and that he learned at a very young age about both houseboats and cooking -- as a result, he can both operate a houseboat and cook incredible food. It reminded me of my childhood. My father was a carpenter who cleaned chimneys on the side and he used to let me tag along to his jobs on weekends. I loved it because he didn’t shy away from letting me do a little heavy lifting or dirty work that would have me covered in soot. I remember how proud we both were when I was able to do something he’d taught me – there’s something, a rich simplicity, in learning organically like that.
We got lucky with mosquitos, as we had not a single bite, but were sure to bring lots of Odomos just in case (side bar: I hear a lot of chatter about Odomos vs. DEET when people talk about mosquito repellants so here's a link to a study which concluded equal efficacy when compared to DEET). We stopped at a village to walk around and take in the natural beauty of the area; long swaths of golden fields of rice separated by dirt retaining walls on top of which small dirt paths has been created for foot travel. The canal-front residents each seemed to have a sort of all-purpose station for water access, where they washed dishes, clothes, and each other throughout the day, a scene we saw play out dozens of times throughout our cruise. We were greeted with mostly happy faces from the locals, and the little kids practiced their English on us as they waved. It was really sweet.
Back on the boat, the captain pointed out lots of duck farms, kingfishers in trees, jackfruit trees, bird nests dangling from branches, and bats hanging from coconut palms, among many other sights that were equally as beautiful as the last, and during the evening we were serenaded by music from the loudspeakers in the area. Sometimes the music was devotional, other times it was for enjoyment, but always it seemed the perfect soundtrack to the slowly changing scenery down the canal.
We cruised and stopped like that for the whole trip before returning to Allepy, and hunkered down for a two-hour ride to the airport.
The whole experience, our itinerary, the food, and the ease with which we were able to sort out logistics while there made this an excellent trip worth circling back around for. We had read many reviews on different houseboat tour companies at Trip Advisor before booking ours, and some of them are downright scary. Bugs, no water, swarms of mosquitos, sicknesses…some of them are really awful! We booked with a company called Nova Holidays Houseboat and for our needs I’m happy to say we were perfectly satisfied.
Our cell phones never lost data or cell service (okay, maybe for a few hours when we were docked near the little village), and I felt like we were always safe and taken care of. The crew on the houseboat was great, the scenery was beautiful (although I’m not sure I would call it pristine, per se), and it was super easy to do in just 5 days. We could have probably even made it work in a three-day weekend if we had decided not to explore Fort Kochi. I would highly recommend a stay at the Ramada, especially if you have kids, and caution to bring sunscreen, floppy hats, and bug spray because, even though we got lucky, I can see the potential for lots of buzzy visitors in Kerala.